D&D’s alignment system has been causing problems for DMs since its inception. This is, in part, because no one can seem to agree on how it works.
If you’re playing by the book, arguments and confusion over alignment is an issue because even at low levels, one’s alignment has measurable impact on game play. There are alignment languages, the effects of the protection from evil spell, and—perhaps most importantly—the significance of alignment when dealing with intelligent magic swords. So unless you want your session to devolve into an argument over whether a PC can wield that +3 sword without taking 1d6 damage per round, it’s important to get these things straightened out before play begins.
Are alignments descriptive or prescriptive? If a player writes “Chaotic” on his character sheet, is that an acknowledgement of the character’s leanings or a statement of intent that will drive the character’s actions? The Moldvay Basic rules suggest both; one’s alignment is a “way of life,” but it merely provides “guidelines for characters to live by.” If the DM thinks a character isn’t being played in accordance with her alignment, he may either suggest that the player change the alignment or impose a “punishment or penalty,” but he cannot actually declare that the character’s alignment has changed.
Whether it’s prescriptive, descriptive or both, alignment can lead to problems:
1) “I’m just playing my alignment.” Many players mark their characters as Chaotic, Evil or Neutral as an excuse for antisocial behavior. Then they murder your PC, steal all of your gold or simply abandon you to die at the bottom of a pit. On the flip side, players who denote their characters as Lawful or Good may then go on to play the Morality Police and shut down the rest of the party’s efforts at muddling through the morally gray areas of the adventuring world. This behavior is justified—after a fashion—by a prescriptive reading of alignment. Sadly, even good-natured players can succumb to this error; choosing an alignment that seems interesting, they follow its prescriptions only to find that this spoils the fun of other people at the table.
2) “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood.” Conversely, some players perceive their PCs’ alignments very differently from the DM and/or their fellow players. Typically this involves a Neutral (OD&D / BD&D) or Chaotic Neutral (AD&D) character consistently demonstrating selfish, deceitful and cruel behavior. More dramatically, I still remember how the first session of one failed D&D game I ran several years ago devolved into a twenty-minute argument with the player of a paladin over whether it was appropriate Lawful Good behavior for her character to use poison or torture.
Common solutions to these problems involve either removing all mechanical support for the alignment rules, so that they’re simply descriptors that the rest of the group can ignore, or by cutting alignment out of the game altogether. But this isn’t wholly in the spirit of our exploration of old school play—and more to the point, it doesn’t help us play around with Moorcockean tropes involving sentient magical artifacts swaying our characters towards Chaos, Law or Neutrality!
My current take on alignment in the Glantri Red Box game is that most people are Neutral; they’re concerned with their own personal interest and that of their loved ones, and are not prone to grand gestures of altruism or treachery. On the whole, they prefer Law to Chaos because an orderly society benefits them more than it stifles them. The Lawful and Chaotic alignments are generally the province of ideologues, priests, madmen and the champions of supernatural forces.
When the alignment of a PC actually has an impact on play—such as through the acquisition of an intelligent magic sword—I’ll use the alignment on the character’s sheet as an indicator of the player’s intent, but if the written alignment is a serious mismatch for how the character has been played, I’m ready to declare that the written alignment is, in fact, incorrect. This is a tricky approach! I believe that it requires the DM to give the player every benefit of the doubt. To do otherwise would be terribly unfair; there’s an enormous amount of subjectivity here, and it can be arrogant and offensive to elevate one’s own opinions about a character over the opinions of that character’s creator.
(And when it comes to magic swords, I’m perfectly happy to allow a sudden alignment change to match the sword if the wielder is willing to swear allegiance to Law or Chaos. And that’s where those punishments and penalties come in…)